Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed
We gather in a house of peace,
where violence of hand or tongue
are unwelcome strangers.
The Spirit is among us as we breathe and sing and pray,
speaking gentle, kind, and friendly words.
Within us and through us may Divine love reach out,
cooling hearts in which resentment burns,
warming hearts made deathly cold by hatred,
reviving hearts grown lukewarm with unconcern.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.05 am on Sunday morning) words by Cliff Reed
For millennia beyond count,
in winter’s cold and night’s darkness,
people have gathered around fire,
feeling its warmth, seeing by its light,
forging community with food and work
and songs and stories.
In all faith traditions of our kind,
fire has meaning. And so we gather,
sharers all in the human spirit
that makes us one.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
in this not yet post-Covid world,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way.
Reading from The Book of Acts, Chapter 6: 3-12, Chapter 7:54-60
The original apostles soon found it hard to oversee the growing Christian community. So they gathered the whole community and said:
“Select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.
Stephen defended himself eloquently, but his persecutors were determined to kill him…
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
He was the first Christian martyr.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust.
Reading Boxing Day from Wikipedia
The European tradition of giving money and other gifts to those in need, or in service positions, has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. It is sometimes believed to be in reference to the alms box placed in the narthex of Christian churches to collect donations for the poor. The tradition may come from a custom in the late Roman/ early Christian era wherein alms boxes placed in churches were used to collect special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen, which, in the Western Christian Churches, falls on the same day as Boxing Day, the second day of Christmastide. On this day, it is customary in some localities for the alms boxes to be opened and distributed to the poor…
The term “Christmas box” dates back to the 17th century, and among other things meant: A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.
In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year… This custom is linked to an older British tradition where the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families since they would have had to serve their masters on Christmas Day. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.
Prayer St Stephen’s Day: for the workers from Sacred Earth by Cliff Reed
Let us give thanks for those who, gladly and willingly,
doggedly and determinedly, do the work that we would
find it hard to do ourselves:
work that is too dirty and dangerous and unpleasant
for us to contemplate,
work that would test us beyond the limits of our
capabilities, be they physical, mental, or emotional,
work done at times when we would rather be at rest,
in places we would rather not go,
work that would pose too great a challenge to our
tender consciences, though it must be done,
work with people we would rather not have to meet
or think about,
work that might just cost us our lives, as it may cost
the lives of those who do it now.
For all these workers, we give thanks, O God,
for on them we depend.
Be with them in their labours,
help us to appreciate them as you do.
Reading Good King Wenceslas from Wikipedia
“Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the Second Day of Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935).
In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the “Wenceslas” lyric, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, published by Novello & Co the same year.
Brian Scott… says the carol “still reminds us that the giving spirit of Christmas should not happen just on that day…”
Time of Stillness and Reflection A Christmas Prayer by A. Powell Davies
O thou who has called us out of the darkness
into the marvellous light of life and love,
help us to find our way through the noise
and turmoil of the days ahead
to the true meaning of Christmas,
to its quiet joys and to its peace.
Teach us that we cannot hear the songs
until our own hearts learn to sing them,
and that the most important gifts
which we can give to one another
cannot be wrapped and put under the Christmas tree.
Show us, whose needs are so great,
how close we are to what we seek,
and how often the things we want most desperately
are ours already,
if we will only stretch out our hands.
Help us to be brave enough for life and love,
and guide us in our search through doubt and darkness
until we find the faith which
knows no place or season –
until we learn at last that
though the very stars may wander,
there is that within us
which need never lose its way.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address On the Feast of Stephen
The 26th of December is the second day of Christmastide, and most of us know it as Boxing Day. It is also the feast day of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who was stoned to death in 36 CE, as we saw in our first reading.
In our 21st century world, it is the day when many of us climb into our cars and travel to visit relatives, to be together at Christmas. It certainly is in the Ellis family – for many years we have all gathered at my parents’ house (now at my sister’s because my mother finds the task of putting together a Christmas meal for fourteen far too much – she is 90 after all!) and share food and catch up with each other’s lives. My mother calls it Christmas Day Number Two.
But this is not true for everyone. I have an elderly friend, who doesn’t get on with his family and would much rather spend Christmas Day, in fact the whole Christmas season, in his little house with his beloved cat, eating what he wants – he’s quite a fussy eater – watching what he chooses to on TV and being quite content to spend Christmas alone.
Then there are those who spend Christmas alone, not out of choice, but out of necessity. They may have no family, no close friends, or may have fallen through the cracks in society for some reason. As I said last week, “Christmas has a darker, largely unacknowledged side. Unaccustomed proximity can lead to bitter family arguments and breakdowns in relationships. And there are also so many lonely people who simply don’t have anyone to share Christmas with, and who wouldn’t feel like celebrating even if they did. For such people, the contrast between their lives and the Christmas projected through the media can exacerbate feelings of isolation, panic, stress and depression. For them, Christmas is a season to be got through somehow, not a time of joy and sharing. And even people who are spending the time with friends or family may feel pressured to appear happy and to hide their true feelings or problems so as not to spoil the party atmosphere.”
It was one of these, a poor peasant, that the carol tells us “Good King Wenceslas” trekked through the snow to visit “on the feast of Stephen.” Some people have dismissed the carol as Victorian doggerel, but I’m with Brian Scott, who wrote that the carol, “still reminds us that the giving spirit of Christmas should not happen just on that day…”
I find the history of Boxing Day fascinating. I shared some of it with you as our second reading. It became the custom to thank people in service positions for their work throughout the year, or as an opportunity to give alms to the poor. Which is somewhat patronising, but a good thought, I suppose. The thing I find sad is that after all the ‘season of goodwill’ giving, many of us go back to our usual less generous ways for the rest of the year. Truly, the giving spirit of Christmas should extend to the rest of the year.
In the United Kingdom, Boxing Day has been a bank holiday since 1871, except when it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year. Then the public holiday is on the following Tuesday, the Monday being the public holiday for Christmas Day. Although there are many people in our society who will be working today and tomorrow and Tuesday, which is why Cliff Reed’s prayer for the workers is an important reminder that many people do work we would rather not do, at times we would rather not be working, and we should be grateful to and for them, instead of taking them for granted. And of course there are also many service workers – in care homes, hospitals and so on – for whom Boxing Day is just another day, as the needs of the sick and the old continue 24/7, regardless. Such workers may get paid more or get time off in lieu for working on a public holiday, but hospitals, care homes (and now, many retailers) are open 365 days a year. Which I find less excusable. Why can’t we Just Stop Buying Stuff (at least for a couple of days)?
The Wikipedia article also detailed how Boxing Day is marked in various countries (mostly ex-British Empire) around the world. In South Africa, they call it the Day of Goodwill. It was renamed by Nelson Mandela’s new government in 1994, to sever ties with the country’s colonial past.
The National Day Calendar website tells us, “Each year on December 26th, South Africa celebrates the Day of Goodwill. The day has become a day to recover from the indulgences of Christmas festivities. People are also encouraged to give back to society following the Christmas holiday. When someone has goodwill toward another person they act in a compassionate and friendly manner. Goodwill is acting out of compassion instead of our selfish human nature. It’s also putting the needs of others before ourselves. On the Day of Goodwill, South Africans distinguish between their needs and their wants. They give to others with an attitude of love and charity. What this day isn’t is a clean-up day after Christmas. … To truly observe this day, South Africans are strongly encouraged to think about others.
Some of the ways to participate in this day include:
- Box up everything you don’t need and give it away
- Make a donation to a charity that helps the poor
- Give away leftover food
- Host a meal for the poor or homeless
- Give back to society by volunteering with a local organization
- Think about the word goodwill and how you can apply it to your life”
Which brings us rather nicely to a very neat meme which does the rounds on Facebook each December, which sums up the Spirit of Christmas for me. It is a Christmas Bucket List, with six items, partly crossed out, and substituted with other words, so I’ll have to paraphrase for it to make sense:
- Instead of buying presents, be present.
- Instead of wrapping gifts, wrap someone in a hug.
- Instead of sending gifts, send love.
- Instead of shopping for food, donate food.
- Instead of making cookies, make memories.
- Instead of seeing the light, be the Light.
And yes, I get it, but in my opinion, it should be both/and, rather than either/or. I have bought presents for the people I love, but also welcome the reminder to be present in the moment, day by day, instead of getting lost in the busyness. I will be wrapping the gifts I have bought this weekend but will also be wrapping a lot of people in hugs (Covid permitting), during the next few days (and being wrapped in hugs also, I hope – again, Covid permitting!)
I will be sending gifts, but also sending love to all those people who make my life so blessed. Including you. I will be shopping for food, and have already paid a visit to the Northampton Food Bank with a donation. This Christmas, sadly, I won’t be making or eating cookies, or mince pies or many other sweet Christmas treats, because most of them contain gluten, but I will surely be making memories, particularly on Boxing Day, when our extended family gathering happens. Finally, as well as seeing (and enjoying) all the beautiful, colourful Christmas lights, I will be striving to be the Light for those I love.
It is a good reminder about the things which really matter at Christmas – not the tangible things that one can buy, and consume, but the gifts of love and awareness, which cannot be bought and always renew themselves. The things we can look back on with fondness, when the food has been eaten, the presents have been opened, the paper recycled, and the decorations taken down.
I also want to acknowledge what I think should be the true spirit of Christmas, “the spirit of good will and peace … [the] spirit that bids us renew our hopes amid the gathering darkness, that kindles our generosity and our concerns, that attunes our ears to the ever-renewed angelic chorus” as Max Gaeble puts it. Because that is here too, in our minds, and in our hearts.
I’d like to finish with the inspirational words of African-American theologian, educator and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
May it be so, in 2022. Amen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we appreciate our Christmas break,
But remember with gratitude those for whom
It is not a holiday, but an ordinary working day.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
may we share the love we feel,
may we look out for each other,
and may we keep up our hearts,
now and in the days to come.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley